Context: Judaism as a Civilization

Kaplan’s Chapter on Jewish Education in the Context of Judaism as a Civilization

Dr. Eric Caplan, a co-founder and vice president of the Kaplan Center, is a scholar of Reconstructionist Judaism and liberal Jewish life. Here Dr. Caplan describes the context of Kaplan’s 20th Century Vision of Jewish Education, which was written as a chapter of Judaism as a Civilization.

Kaplan and Education

Judaism as a Civilization both begins and ends with comments on Jewish education. In the Preface to the book, Kaplan tells us that his experience as a Jewish educator both sensitized him to the need to “reconstruct” Judaism and helped him to discover what that reconstruction needed to address. Take a look:

  • Parents who wish to inculcate in their children habits and appreciations which are part of Jewish life can no longer do so as a matter of course but have to argue about it with themselves no less than with their children. And the problem is by no means confined to parents and children. Nowadays anyone who displays an interest in Jewish activities is challenged and must be prepared to explain what he sees in Judaism…. The Sages build better than they knew when they included in the liturgy a prayer not only for the knowledge of the Torah but also for the ability to teach it. Never was a prayer so much in need of being answered as that one, since it has never been so hard to teach Judaism as it is now….
  • The more I observed the spiritual struggle that went on in the minds of the students and the laity whom I was trying to teach, the more clearly I realized that the present crisis in Judaism spelled unprecedented maladjustment in the spiritual life of Jews. In my search for a way to check the devastation of the Jewish spiritual heritage, I rediscovered Judaism….
  • Thanks to the synthesis between Jewish tradition and modernism which the approach to Judaism as a civilization has made it possible for me to effect, I have observed young and old thrill to the beauty of meaning which the Jewish heritage suddenly assumed for them, and rejoice in the creative possibilities which they began to discern in Jewish life.

That Kaplan was both a philosopher and practitioner of Jewish education is readily apparent in the “Meaning of Jewish Education in America”: the book’s penultimate chapter and the focus of this Vision Project. Kaplan’s philosophy of Jewish education will come as no surprise to the reader who has gone through the previous 478 pages of the book because it closely aligns with his general approach to Judaism. In chapter 15, for example, Kaplan defines Jewish civilization as consisting of 6 core elements: land (Israel), language (Hebrew, primarily), folkways (ethical standards, rituals, customs), folk sanctions (the ideas that validate the folkways), folk arts, social structure (community institutions).

Who can be surprised, therefore, that in the education chapter Kaplan calls on us to teach Hebrew or to make room for artistic expression? What makes this chapter engaging—indeed, one of the most compelling in the book—is the wealth of knowledge gleaned from classroom experience and involvement in Jewish communal institutions that he brings to the discussion of how to translate his Jewish philosophy into educational practice. Kaplan tells us, for example, to use youth movements as vehicles of moral education; to cultivate children’s innate sense of gratitude and use this is a pathway to belief in God; and to see the teaching of religion as a specialization that, like art or science, requires instructors with particular skills and knowledge.

These remain compelling, as do many other suggestions in the chapter, because they respond to challenges and possibilities in the field of Jewish education that have not changed much in the 85 years since Judaism as a Civilization was first published. They help us to, in Kaplan’s words, “make the Jewish training so effective in enlarging the mental scope of the child’s life, in socializing his attitude toward his fellow-men, in inculcating in him an appreciation of life’s worth and sanctity, that parents will rejoice to have such training imparted to their children.”